Could Abnormal Tau Spread Like an Infection Among Patients with Alzheimer’s?

A new year has officially begun, and scientists have found evidence that the protein, known as tau, may spread from neuron to neuron.

Being one of two key proteins involved within the progression of Alzheimer’s, tau is found inside neurons — whereas amyloid-beta forms outside of cells.

Is it possible that tau spreads like an infection? If so, is it possible to intervene?

Study Finds — Tau May Spread Like an Infection

For the first time, researchers have shown that the protein tau, spreads across neurons. Both tau and amyloid-beta are often cited in Alzheimer’s research, as scientists try to determine which is the most influential in terms of neurodegeneration.

As published in Brain, researchers from the University of Cambridge studied 17 Alzheimer’s patients. Using both functional magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography scanning, they were able to map tau in relation to functional connectivity.

By observing how various brain regions communicate with one another, they were able to paint a clearer picture. What they found, was that the largest concentrations of tau were within regions that were heavily connected to others. This suggests that tau may spread like an infection.

Described as the ‘transneuronal spread’ hypothesis for Alzheimer’s, these recent findings support this theory. The researchers stated that they strongly believe that tau begins in one place, before moving across neurons and synapses. Tau clumps then begin to affect other places of the brain.

Since this has never been shown in humans before, some are skeptical as the researchers did not follow patients across time. Although these findings are exciting, it is important to remember that there is no longitudinal proof here. In order to address some of the concerns associated with this study, the team at Cambridge will now conduct a larger study, observing patients across time.

More on Tau…

As mentioned, tau has been a key area of interest throughout the available research. In May 2017, a study was published in Molecular Psychiatry, showcasing how tau spreads through the brain. The researchers concluded that the size of these deposits, as well as the speed in which they spread differs from one patient to the next.

It was also stated that large amounts of tau can be linked to episodic memory impairment. By studying the brains of 16 patients at different stages of Alzheimer’s, they were able to measure the spread of tau in relation to the energy metabolism of brain cells. These patients underwent PET scans at 17-month intervals.

It was concluded that although all 16 patients had significant amyloid plaques deposits, tau deposits differed between individuals. The researchers found a strong connection between the size of tau deposits and episodic memory impairment, but reported that tau did not have much effect on global general memory. Instead, this is believed to be related to brain metabolism.

Once again, this shows how complex this disease truly is.

Is There Any Way to Prevent Tau From Forming?

Without an available cure, it is imperative that we continue to focus on preventative interventions.

In order to address both tau and amyloid-beta, you can take positive action. Although it is not 100% certain how these proteins influence the development of Alzheimer’s, at the very least, key lifestyle changes will have a positive impact on your long-term health.

As stated by researchers at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, regular exercise, a healthy diet, and a normal body mass index can reduce protein build-ups in the brain. As published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, this study was the first of its kind, linking a healthy lifestyle to lower levels of plaques (clumps of amyloid-beta) and tangles (knotted threads of tau).

Stress is also believed to play a potential role in the formation of defective tau. Linked to conditions such as depression and anxiety, researchers have also found a connection between stress-related hormones and the possible development of Alzheimer’s. While studying mice, acute stress (across a 20-minute period) was shown to increase amounts of phosphorylated tau. After 24 hours, these levels decreased.

This led researchers to study the potential effects of chronic stress. This time, the researchers placed the mice under stress for two weeks. What they found, was that levels of phosphorylated tau were still high 20 minutes after the final stress, and remained high 24 hours later.

This is why it is important to manage stress on a daily basis. You can do so by:

  • Reducing your intake of caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol.
  • Increasing physical activity while consuming a more balanced diet.
  • Implementing relaxation techniques into your daily routine, including meditation, yoga, and journaling.
  • Better managing your time while addressing possible stressors.
  • Focusing on improving sleep quality.

This year, make your health a priority. After all, Bill Gates said it best, “Treatment without prevention is simply unsustainable.”

Krista Hillis has a B.A.Sc degree, specializing in neuroscience and psychology. She is actively involved in the mental health and caregiving community, aiming to help others. Krista is also passionate about nutrition and the ways in which lifestyle choices affect and influence the human brain.

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